Bullet Journal (BuJo for short) is a personal productivity system invented by a product designer named Ryder Carroll. You can find a detailed introduction to BuJo on its official web site, but I can provide you the short summary here.
The system lives entirely within an old-fashioned paper notebook. Each day you dedicate a page of the notebook to a daily log in which you create a bulleted list of tasks and events. As the day unfolds, you use shorthand marks to indicate a task is complete or needs to be migrated to a different day.
You can also take brief notes about the day, and, if needed, hijack multiple pages for more extensive musing. The next daily log can live on the next available page. (This idea that you format notebook pages on demand instead of in advance is fundamental to BuJo.)
There are some standard pages most BuJo notebooks include in addition to the daily log entries. An index at the front of the notebook is used to keep track of how the pages are being used. You grow the index as you fill the notebook. Each month also gets its own monthly overview and task list that are used to inform how you schedule individual days. And so on.
A good way to think about BuJo is basically a less-rigid version of the Franklin Planner system.
BuJo for the Overloaded
A lot of readers have asked me about BuJo so I thought I would share some thoughts.
First, I want to emphasize what I really like about the system. Its largely unstructured use of a blank notebook is a brilliant example of low-friction freestyle productivity. In my experience, these types of systems are much more likely to persist than those that require more involved constraints.
I also love BuJo’s embrace of paper as a fantastically flexible technology. A typical notebook in this system uses many different formats, conventions and notations — many of which might be custom to the individual user and change rapidly over time. This would be prohibitively difficult to implement in a digital tool.
Also: notebooks don’t need batteries.
My main concern, however, is that this system, as traditionally deployed, cannot keep up with the complexity and volume of demands that define many modern knowledge work jobs, where the sheer volume of tasks you must juggle, or calendar events in a typical week, might overwhelm any attempt to exist entirely within a world of concise and neatly transcribed notebook pages.
With this in mind, I’ve been brainstorming recently about how one might upgrade the rules of BuJo to better handle these unique demands, while still keeping the features I really like about the original framework — creating, for lack of a better term, a BuJoPro system.
Here are some of the ideas I had about shifting from BuJo to some notion of BuJoPro…
- Introduce weekly plans. In BuJo, you create a list of tasks and key events for the current month, and then use these pages to inform the plans on each daily log page. In BuJoPro, you should also put aside a page for a weekly plan at the beginning of each week. Use this plan to confront what you’ve already scheduled for the week and what you want to do with the remaining free time. It’s common for weekly plans to change; when this occurs, update the plan. If the changes are significant, create a new weekly plan on the next available page, this new plan can cover the days that remain in the week. (See here for more on weekly planning.)
- Time block daily plans. In BuJo, each day is driven by a daily log page that contains a list of tasks and events. As longtime readers know, I am not a fan of using lists to dictate your behavior. It’s much more effective to block out the hours of your day and assign them to specific efforts. This time blocking strategy provides a much more realistic assessment of how much time you really have free and allows you more control in optimizing your use of this time. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every waking minute must be scheduled. Effective time blockers tend to to block out all hours during the work day, and then fall back to a more informal plan for their hours outside work. (See here for more on time blocking.)
- Maintain a deep work tally. Once you’re time blocking every day, it’s easy to use BuJo-style shorthand to track deep work hours. I recommend circling each hour in your daily plan during which you maintained unbroken concentration on a demanding task. When summarizing your week or month it’s then easy to quickly tabulate how many of your work hours were spent in a state of depth — a compelling scoreboard that helps ensure you’re producing value, and not just reacting to demands.
- Augment the notebook with a calendar and master task list. The beauty of BuJo is that it exists within a single self-contained notebook. This feature, however, can also be a fatal flaw. Many knowledge workers unavoidably fragment their week with dozens of shifting appointments and meetings. There’s no way to manage this easily in a paper notebook — it’s simply much more effective to use a digital calendar. Similarly, as David Allen famously argues, many modern professionals must keep track of hundreds of professional tasks. These cannot effectively exist in a paper notebook on a monthly task list — it’s simply more effective to maintain a digital list. In BuJoPro, therefore, you should reference a digital calendar and master task list each week when creating your weekly plan. As your week unfolds, you can then mainly live within your analog notebook.
- Integrate email. Probably the biggest omission from BuJo in the professional setting is that it ignores the (unfortunate) reality that most knowledge workers drive their work day by sending and receiving emails. There must be, therefore, a considerate process for interfacing between an email inbox and paper notebook. In BuJoPro, the digital calendar and master task list can mediate between these two worlds. That is, as you check your inbox, you can add new events or deadlines to your calendar, and new tasks to your master task list. Because you check your calendar and master list during the weekly planning process, these updates will integrate into your paper scheduling as needed. If something pops up in your inbox that impacts the current week, you can directly modify the current weekly and/or daily log as needed to integrate the change.
Caveat emptor: I haven’t field tested BuJoPro. The above ideas are merely speculation on how one might maintain all the things I love about the self-contained analog simplicity of BuJo, while successfully tackling the annoying challenges unique to our current hyper-connected world.
(I should also note that “BuJo” is a registered trademark, while “BuJoPro” is just a term I made up that has no official connection to any official Bullet Journal enterprises.)